A lot has changed since the Warriors and Pelicans met in the 2015 playoffs, and both teams are slow to forget the series that changed both franchises.
After the Golden State Warriors completed their gentleman’s sweep of the San Antonio Spurs Tuesday night, the first second-round matchup was finally set. Even without Stephen Curry, the Warriors found their way past the overmatched Spurs with expected ease. The ease with which their upcoming matchup dispatched their first-round opponent was less predictable.
Starting Saturday, the Warriors will match-up with the six-seeded New Orleans Pelicans, a team that has already exceeded expectations. New Orleans dismantled the Portland Trail Blazers in round one, sweeping their way past the team ESPN analysts unanimously picked to win the series. New Orleans has had the past few days to rest, recover, and motivate themselves to beat the last team they lost to in the postseason.
When the Pelicans and Warriors met in the 2015 playoffs, the NBA was a different place. The Spurs were reigning champs, LeBron James had returned to Cleveland, the Warriors were on the precipice of a dynasty, and the Pelicans were approaching a crossroads. Three full NBA seasons have pushed it back in our minds, but that series has become a huge moment for two interconnected franchises.
The 2014-15 Warriors rode into the playoffs with heads held high. In Steve Kerr’s first year at the helm, Curry was about to win his first MVP and the Warriors’ 67 wins earned them home-court advantage for the first time in 23 years. The Pelicans, led by a 21-year-old Anthony Davis, had already achieved their goals by winning 45 games and sneaking into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The Warriors expected more than just a playoff appearance. They were a raw, unpolished ball of potential compared to the juggernaut we know today, and few knew how much to expect from a team who’d lost in round one to the Clippers the year before.
Ultimately, the series only lasted four games. The Warriors swept the Pelicans on their way to winning their first title since 1975, but the number of games alone doesn’t convey just how intense a series it was. For nearly all of the 197 minutes of game time, we saw two emerging stars dominate.
Curry led the Warriors with 33.8 points and 7.3 assists per game while shooting 41.7 percent from three. Davis held his own with 31.5 points, 11.0 rebounds, and 3.0 blocks per night. Both players were fantastic all series long, but Game 3 was the perfect encapsulation of how high-level a series it was. Davis put up 29 and 15 and Curry led both teams with 40 points, none more spectacular than his ridiculous heave over Davis to force overtime.
The end of the series didn’t feel all that consequential at the time, but it became an inflection point for both franchises. The Warriors used the series as a springboard to two titles, a 73-win season, and the addition of Kevin Durant. The 2015 series was the starting point of turning the bright-eyed Warriors into the grizzled, veteran group they are today.
While the past few years have flown by for the Warriors, they have been a slog in New Orleans. Making the playoffs was supposed to be just the start of Davis’ NBA success but the sweep started to crumble the structure of the team around him.
The sweep was head coach Monty William’s final act in charge of New Orleans and he was fired shortly after the series. Players like Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Tyreke Evans were focal points of the offense but all have moved on to other Western Conference teams. There are very few holdovers from the 2015 squad still on this year’s Pelicans, but this team is stronger for it.
As the Warriors were celebrating their championship a couple of months after the first round series, New Orleans hired then-Warriors assistant Alvin Gentry to become their new head coach. Gentry was brought in to elevate a plateaued team – much like Steve Kerr was in Golden State a year earlier – but the next two years saw regression.
The Pelicans finished the next two seasons under .500 with Davis picking up constant, nagging injuries. As the Pelicans continued to struggle, outside noise about Davis’ best years going to waste began to grow. Turning spare parts into DeMarcus Cousins helped silence the criticism for a while, but losing Boogie for the rest of the season to a torn Achilles put the pressure back on.
But in the three months since Cousins’ injury, Davis took his game to another level. In those 47 games, Davis put up 29.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game, numbers strikingly similar to the ones he put up against Golden State in the playoffs three years ago.
That’s why fears that this year’s team would fail in the postseason like they did in 2015 were understandable. Even with how great Davis is, few players can win a playoff series as an underdog with that much of a burden on their shoulders. Very quickly, the Pelicans taught us that they had far more shoulders capable of holding the weight of a playoff series than we gave them credit for.
Jrue Holiday was essentially non-existent in the 2015 series, averaging 6.3 points and 4.3 assists, but he was arguably the best player in the entire series against Portland. He averaged 27.8 points and 6.5 assists against the Blazers while playing elite defense against Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum.
First-year Pelicans Nikola Mirotic and Rajon Rondo were also both outstanding in round one, cementing New Orleans’ superiority over Portland. After four games of brilliance, the 2018 Pelicans look like a team hand-crafted for postseason success, not one stitched together after the loss of an All-Star.
New Orleans is undoubtedly in a better position to succeed than they were in 2015, but so is Golden State. The Warriors’ holdovers are better and Kevin Durant has given them a safety blanket more protective than any other in the league. The Pelicans will have to do a lot to succeed in this series, and very little they do will faze the Warriors.
A lot will be made of the Warriors winning the season series 3-1, but we should take very little from those matchups. The Pelicans centered their offense around Cousins for three of those games and the fourth featured the Warriors without Curry in the middle of their month-long mental sabbatical at the end of the season. Even with the history between these two teams, they might as well be meeting for the first time on Saturday.
Curry’s return seems imminent based on his recovery timeline, but this series will be great regardless of his limitations. At least one of the league’s top-five players will be on the court at all times during the series, and that’s not including Holiday, Mirotic, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green.
Even with how much the Pelicans have achieved this season, they are not a group to rest on their laurels. We know what the Warriors’ goals are for this season, and getting past the Pelicans is only step two on a very simple four-step plan. We can safely say that no matter which team comes out on top, this series will be huge for the future of both franchises.
Edited by Emily Berman.
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- Jrue Holiday
- Ryan Anderson
- Eric Gordon
- Tyreke Evans